Source: 
The Economic Times
http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-06-04/news/39740634_1_political-parties-rti-act-central-information-commission
Date: 
04.06.2013
City: 
New Delhi

EW DELHI: How much rent does Congress Party pay for its sprawling office in Lutyens' Delhi? Who are the people who contribute to BJP's coffers? How much tax exemptions has NCP claimed? Whose aircraft are used by Congress President Sonia Gandhi during election campaigning?

Now the common man can access information on all this and much more - all for just 10.

In a landmark judgement that could force higher standards of transparency in Indian politics, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has brought political parties under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, a 2005 law that has become the scourge of ministers and bureaucrats because it compels government ministries and departments to share details about their functioning with citizens on demand.

A full bench of the CIC headed by Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra has directed six major political parties - Congress, BJP, CPM, CPI, NCP and BSP - to appoint public information officers (PIOs) within six weeks and respond to RTI applications in the next four weeks.

In a 54-page order, the bench, which included information commissioners ML Sharma and Annapurna Dixit, also directed the parties to comply with the provisions of mandatory proactive disclosures under the RTI Act.

The political parties have been directed to put details about employees, office-bearers and their salaries on their websites. The judgement, which some experts believe could bring about major changes in Indian politics by forcing greater disclosure from political parties long used to opacity, has one major problem area — it applies to just the six national parties when there are some 1,400 of them registered with the Election Commission.

Chief Information Commissioner Mishra said the bench could not have passed a blanket order covering all parties. "We examined the six parties the applicants asked for information. We couldn't have extended the matter to all parties... There could be parties that did not seek a single paisa of exemption under income tax or get any land from the government at concessional rates. 

So how do we declare them public authorities?" But applicants, RTI activist Subhash Agrawal and Anil Bairwal of the Association of Democratic Reforms who had sought information on voluntary financial contributions received by the six parties and the names and addresses of their donors, said they were determined to get all political formations under the ambit of the RTI Act. "We won't leave the rest of them.

This is just the beginning. We will apply for information to all other parties... and then take the fight till the CIC, after citing this order," said Bairwal. The political parties rejected the applications saying they did not come under the ambit of the transparency legislation.

Agrawal and Bairwal's fight against the system began with a complaint to the CIC stating that while political parties are not classified as "public authorities", they are indirectly and substantially funded by the government through public money and should come under the RTI Act.

They said political parties were leased large tracts of government land at concessional rates, granted free airtime on Doordarshan and All India Radio and enjoy income-tax exemptions. While all political parties actively participated in the hearings at the CIC, the ruling Congress, which counts the RTI Act as one of its notable achievements, did not reply to CIC's notices. Barring CPI, all parties opposed the move to bring them under the ambit of the RTI. CPI said that while morally it felt it should be under the RTI, legally there were no grounds.

When the CIC sent out a notice last November 1 to the six parties seeking details such as land leased out to them and the rent paid for it, only NCP and CPM replied.

While NCP said it did not come under RTI Act and did not need to furnish this information, CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat personally replied furnishing all information. None of the others replied. On Monday too, Congress chose to remain silent, with spokesman Shakeel Ahmed saying: "If the CIC has delivered a judgement, what can we say?" BJP, which has in the past opposed coming under the ambit of RTI, said it was studying the judgement, which can be challenged in the high court.

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